It takes a lot to give up a career in finance: holidays, lush apartments, expensive cocktails all go out of the window.
But for Jenny Dawson, swapping a lifestyle of luxury to a more modest one was a natural progression because she was so driven by her desire for social change.
Jenny’s labour of love is Rubies In The Rubble, a company that uses discarded fruit and vegetables from farmers and markets to make chutney using her mother’s recipes. She also hires homeless people to work on the business to give them a start at getting long-term employment.
Gone was the flash pad in Angel, instead she had to move to a tiny room with a single bed.
That was three years ago, and ahead of her nomination for a 2014 Veuve Cliquot New Generation Woman award, Jenny may not be making a huge amount from the business, but the impact she is making is undeniable.
She describes her two lives as being “hugely different” which took some adjusting at first.
“I went from a really nice salary to nothing and that was a big change – realising I had to budget a bit - but I’ve always loved going around on my bike and having picnics with friends.
“I missed holidays with friends and had to be more careful about who I went for drinks with.”
So why give up a comfy life in the hedge fund world?
“For a while I’d had itchy feet – I’d always wanted to own my own business. For instance, I sold my own caviar in Hong Kong for a bit. Then I started reading an article within one of the free papers about people getting arrested for diving into a supermarket bin to take food that was thrown away.
“The story stuck with me and I googled it and realised the scale of how much food we throw away, and the implications financially and environmentally. What struck me was also the moral side – as a modern phenomena we’re wasting a third of what we produce.”
After going to a few talks about how people are judged in society on their financial basis, Jenny began her own journey thinking about her own characteristics.
“When you are surrounded by wealth all the time you get blinded to other people’s situations, I wanted to make a brand that was about things cast aside – it might be a wonky carrot – and a brand that champions cherishing things.”
Rubies in the Rubble isn’t about making food from actual rubbish, but from the tonnes of fresh food and veg that haven’t been sold on the day or can’t be sold by farmers for whatever reason.
On the topic of discarded food, Jenny said in an interview with The Mail Online: “Some were misshapen, so would be rejected by supermarkets, but a lot was simply surplus. It struck me how immoral it was.
“We bring food in from Africa, demand low prices, and there’s such glut when it arrives that we can afford to throw it away.”
As part of her personal journey, Jenny went to wholesale food markets at 4am to see how bad the wastage was. “Seeing pallets of things thrown away – from Kenya and different places in the world, it grated on me. I was brought up in Scotland on a farm and my mother is an artist and loves gardening. Whenever there was a glut of fruit and veg, she’d make it into a preserve and enjoy it in the winter. I wanted to make a brand that was first class and championed this.”
To test whether it would be popular, she made a batch in recycled jam jars begged and borrowed from restaurants and cafes, wrapped in bits of fabric from Liberty’s.
On a bitterly cold winter’s day in December 2010, she set up a stall at the Cabbages & Frocks market in Marylebone and sold her jars. It went well.
That was the point she decided to try it full time.
Of course, her friends and family thought she was crazy to be trading a well-paid, secure job for the unknown.
“They thought I was absolutely mad. I wasn’t known for cooking, but told them I was going to leave work to make chutney and jam. Everyone at the hedge fund thought I was bonkers too but at the same time knew I was passionate about it.”
Jenny moved quickly. She called cafes, church halls and charities that had kitchens that might not be used. She then got a team of friends together and then, there was a glut.
“The time in December is just after apple season, and there was a farm in Sussex that had a bad season – their apples were too small and they were just rotting. So we picked the ones that weren’t and used those.”
Having a base was important, so Jenny chose Spitalfields market in London. “They go through 700,000 tonnes of fruit and vegetables a year and 200 tonnes of surplus ever week. We put a kitchen up on site – a stone’s throw from 160 different traders – and we had the scope to play around with finding out what were the main things that were being thrown away.
As well as picking up the excess produce on site, Jenny’s team also reached out to farmers. Apple and pear farmers, for instance, may sometimes decide that if they can’t afford the labour cost, it is easier to leave the fruit rotting on the trees. In some cases, they’ll negotiate picking the fruit or arranging for transportation.
Despite all the amazing work Rubies In The Rubble is doing, one of the most important initiatives has been hiring homeless people to help.
“We hooked up with Crisis,” says Jenny, “who have a café called the Skylight – they train people and give catering qualifications to give them skills and get back into a career. They work in a café for four months and if they want to carry on they can come and work with us.”
For these people who in some ways are also viewed as discarded – it was a nice link to the company.
The feedback Jenny has had is that they have loved the work, and that working with a team, waking up and going to something has given them purpose.
Now Fortnum and Mason stock her chutneys and she’s setting her sights on other products such as air-dried crisps.
When she left her hedge fund job, her employers told Jenny that she could come back if she wanted to, but it’s clear that she’s found her place in the world, and that includes helping it to be a better place.
If you or someone you know is taking steps to live a life that's simpler, saner and more fulfilling, we want to hear you about it. To submit a Letting Go nomination, email firstname.lastname@example.org.Suggest a correction